ImageThat depends on what you mean by "work" and by "free."

Work is what you do as a professional, when you make a promise that involves rigor and labor (physical and emotional) and risk. Work is showing up at the appointed time, whether or not you feel like it. Work is creating value on demand, and work (for the artist) means putting all of it (or most of it) on the line.

So it's not work when you indulge your hobby and paint an oil landscape, but it's work when you agree to paint someone's house by next week. And it's not work when you cook dinner for friends, but it's work when you're a sous chef on the line on Saturday night.

And free?

Well, you're certainly not working for free if you get some cash at the end of the night. But what about a nine-minute segment on 60 Minutes about your new project, or a long interview with Krista Tippet on her radio show? Should you get paid for that?

Clearly not. Not if you think you'll be able to turn that platform into positive change, into increased trust, into something that moves you forward.

[As more of us work with abundant ideas, not scarce resources, the question comes up more often. I'm not delving at all into the idea of donating your work to a cause you believe in. That's not a selfish calculation, it's a generous one, and I'm all for it, but do it for that reason. Because paying your work forward is the right thing to do.]

Harlan Ellison is gifted, inspired and entertaining, particularly in this video. But his profane refusal to work for free confuses work-for-money with work-for-actually-valuable-attention. (In his case, he's right, the attention on the DVD had no real value to him. Yes, they could pay for that--but see the point about positive externalities, below.)

Of course, many people who would have you work for free value attention far differently than you or I might. No, writing a guest blog post for a little blog is probably not valuable enough to you. No, designing a logo for the zoo for free is probably not valuable either. And the argument that it is valuable (it's good for your portfolio!) is inevitably selfish and irrational. The lions get their food, the vets get paid and even the guy selling peanuts doesn't do it for free...

On the other hand, for a long time it made perfect sense for opinion leaders without big blog followings to write (for 'free') for the Huffington Post. And there's still a line of people eager to write for the New York Times op ed page, not for the money. And if Oprah calls, sure, answer her, even though her show isn't what it used to be.

The more generous you are with your ideas, and the more they spread, the more likely it is your perceived value goes up.

There are double standards all over the place here. There was a national kerfuffle (from people who should be doing something more productive) about Amanda Palmer giving musicians a chance to practice their hobby or voluntarily gain exposure, but no one complains about all the showcases and music festivals that don't pay musicians a penny. There's a law against having interns do work that ought to be paid for, but college football players give up their health and their time to participate for free in a billion-dollar industry...

Positive externalities are one of the magical building blocks of the web. When the work you do creates useful side effects (like the smell wafting from the bakery down the street), it's not only selfish to prevent others from partaking, it's actually stupid. The infrastructure we all depend on only works because we've made it easier than ever for ideas to spread and be shared. That's different, though, from bespoke work and live work and risky work on demand.

The challenge of this calculus is that it keeps changing--the landscape changes and so does your work. When I started my professional speaking career fifteen years ago, not only did I speak for free, my company even paid money to sponsor events so I could speak for free. When TED offered me a chance to speak for free, years later, I took it, because, in fact, the quality of the audience, the attention to detail and the chance to make an impact all made it worth it. But when SXSW, a corporation that makes millions of dollars a year, offers me a chance to be a speaker, pay my own way and hope to get some attention from their very overloaded audience, it's easier for me to say, "free makes no sense here."

Some of the factors to consider:

  • Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?
  • Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education?
  • Is this public work with my name on it, or am I just saving them cash to do a job they should pay for?
  • If I get paid, is it more likely the organization will pay closer attention, promote it better and treat it more seriously?
  • Do I care about their mission? Can they afford to do this professionally?
  • Will I get noticed by the right people, people who will help me spread the word to the point where I can get hired to do this professionally?
  • What's the risk to me, my internal monologue and my reputation if I do this work?

If you're an up-and-coming band building an audience, then yes, free, free, free. It's always worth it for you to gig, because you get at least as much out of the gig as the organizer and the audience do. But when you've upped and come, then no, it's not clear you ought to bring your light and your soul and your reputation along just because some promoter asked you to.

Here's the heart of it: if you're busy doing free work because it's a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work, stop. When you confuse busy for productive, you're sabotaging your ability to do important work in the future. On the other hand, if you're turning down free gigs because the exposure frightens you, the same is true... you're ducking behind the need to get paid as a way to hide your art.

[Thanks to Steve for the push. And to Jessica for the flow chart. Both of which they did for free. Because it wasn't really work and it wasn't really free.]